James Bednarz. Shakespeare & the Poets' War. New York: Columbia UP, 2001. x+334pp. ISBN 0 231 12243 8.

Matthew Steggle
Sheffield Hallam University

Steggle, Matthew. "Review of James Bednarz, Shakespeare & the Poets' War." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.3 (January, 2002): 6.1-10 <URL:

  1. This is a book about the Poets' War, also known as the Poetomachia or the War of the Theatres: the sequence of plays staged in 1599-1601 that appear to employ personal satire of rival dramatists. Most conspicuous among the manifestations of it are Jonson's Poetaster, Dekker's Satiromastix, and the famous metatheatrical allusion in Hamlet: "There ha's beene much throwing about of Braines" (qtd. 228). Beyond this the factual boundaries of the War are unclear, and this complication has ensured that relatively few recent critics have sought to explore it. One of the merits of James Bednarz's book is that it aims to give a full factual account of the War, of a sort not seen since R.A. Small's study of 1899.[1]

  2. Bednarz seeks to change the received view of the War in three ways. Firstly, he wishes to demonstrate that there is personal satire in the Jonson and Marston plays that are generally supposed to have started it, thus in effect siding with Small against a more recent orthodoxy of critics including, notably, Philip Finkelpearl, who sought to distance Marston's plays altogether from the War. Secondly, he argues that this personal representation isn't a mere biographical curiosity, and that the issues being fought over are far more serious, extending into poetics and even further into constructions of individuality and the self. Thirdly, and perhaps most controversially, he argues that Shakespeare is at the heart of the War. In particular, three Shakespeare comedies--As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Troilus and Cressida, are in Bednarz's reading deeply implicated in the fight, both in terms of their intellectual engagement, and in terms of personal satire of Jonson. This is part of a larger theory about the literary relations of Jonson, Shakespeare, and Marston in the years 1599-1601. For Bednarz, Shakespeare is already a literary lion and Marston a disciple-like imitator, and the Shakespeare/Jonson dichotomy is not a product of Restoration myth-making but is already well established relatively early in the two authors' careers. In this account, personalities, not abstract forces, should be placed back at the centre of our understanding of the shaping of the early modern stage.

  3. The book begins, not at the beginning, but with Troilus and Cressida, where Bednarz seeks to advance the idea that Ajax is a representation of Jonson and that the play as a whole can be identified as the culmination of the Poets' War. Thus, it would be the "purge" of Jonson by Shakespeare alluded to (though in a far from unproblematic context) by the author[s] of the Second Return from Parnassus. In this analysis, he builds on ideas advanced by R.A. Small and O.J.Campbell among others and opposed by scholars including Kenneth Muir. For Bednarz, Troilus and Cressida is the smoking gun, implicating not merely itself but the other Shakespeare plays into the War.

  4. In Part One of the book proper, Bednarz goes back to what is constituted as the first "wave" of the Poets' War: Histriomastix, Every Man Out of His Humour, and Jack Drum's Entertainment. For Bednarz, all these can be linked to As You Like It, a play clearly interested in satire and reprehension in the person of Jacques. In particular, Bednarz argues, the differing attitudes displayed to satirical reprehension reflect attitudes to the construction of personal identity--Jonson's appeal to a stable, centred self set against a Shakespearean idea of flux and mutability. The second wave consists, in Bednarz's argument, of Cynthia's Revels, What You Will, and Twelfth Night, with What You Will as a consequence, and an imitation, of the Shakespeare play. Again, Twelfth Night is clearly interested in the nature of fooling and entertainment: but Bednarz is also interested in its presentation of selfhood, self-love, and self- knowledge. Part Three considers the climax of the war in Poetaster, Satiromastix, and the extended reference to it in Hamlet. For Bednarz, Shakespeare's most enduring legacy--his treatment of the fluidity of identity--is an indirect product of the rivalry exposed in these plays: "In opposing Jonson he proposed a modernist poetics that voices the most eloquent expression of the human mind" (264). Hence, as a dialectical process, the War is very important in the development of Shakepearean theatre.

  5. Much of Bednarz's book, then, is the set of related and mutually reinforcing factual propositions which build up the argument that Shakespeare's plays contain reference to and personal satire of Jonson. Taken individually, a number of these propositions aren't certainly true, but that is not really the problem, since scholars of Renaissance drama are used to uncertainties. More worrying is the practice of treating these propositions as if they were fact, without doing justice to the full muddiness of the evidence from which they must be constructed. Much of the debate about this book would have to be conducted in the tedious trench warfare of contesting individual verbal echoes, but a single example can illustrate the methodological problems: the passage commenting on the description of Ajax as "slow." Troilus and Cressida describes Ajax as "slow as the elephant," and "snail-pac'd" (qtd. 36, 39). According to Bednarz,
  6. Although Jonson had already been taken to task in What You Will and Satiromastix for his laborious method of composition, it is in Troilus and Cressida that the specific epithet "slow" is first applied to him as a term of derision. Marston and Dekker had implied it, but they had never used this particular multifaceted word, which was to haunt Jonson's reputation. That Jonson was cognizant of this negative characterization by Shakespeare is apparent in the same "Apologetical Dialogue" to Poetaster... (41)

    --where The Author's interlocutor warns that "they say you are slow, / And scarce bring forth a play a year" (41).

  7. On the one hand, one can continue to disagree with the main point. The examples Bednarz quotes from other War of the Theatres texts are about a Jonson-character who is slow insofar as he takes a long time over writing specifically Jonson-flavoured texts. Ajax, on the other hand, appears to have no interest in literature of any description and is slow in a much less specific way.

  8. Even granting the first part, the rest of the statement--which supports the first part by arguing that Shakespeare's representation clearly had a widespread effect--needs to be wrapped in at least three layers of circumspection. Firstly, "slow" is not a recherché word to use in a context in which Jonson's writing style has already been described as that of a Horatian perfectionist, of a waster of lamp-oil, and of a "Nasty Tortoise" (41). The piece of vocabulary in question in the "Apologetical Dialogue" is perhaps too everyday to be diagnostic of a definite echo of any previous text, and this possibility needs to be acknowledged. Secondly, the relative dating of Troilus and Cressida, of the "Apologetical Dialogue," and even of other relevant texts such as Davies' epigram on the "slow" Jonson (quoted 42) is deeply uncertain. Indeed, there is even a danger of circular argument, since Bednarz dates the Apologetical Dialogue on the basis of the alleged echoes of and reference to Troilus and Cressida (275). In this passage the hypothesis that Troilus and Cressida came first among these texts should be acknowledged as still just a hypothesis. Thirdly, strictly speaking, the word "slow" is in fact used in something close to the required sense in one of the earlier plays in question--Marston's Jonson-surrogate Lampatho Doria applies it to himself, albeit in a slightly unclear context (What You Will, II.ii.883). Once again, the problematic point of detail needs to be at least mentioned and set aside.

  9. The passage, then, is symptomatic of a wider problem with the book's argumentation--it tends to assume the truth of what it is trying to prove, despite the fact that the readership may well be starting from a position of scepticism, and it understates the muddiness of the evidence with which it is necessary to work. For me at least, the effect is that I remain unconvinced of the overall argument that Shakespeare's plays contain personal caricature of Jonson.

  10. Nevertheless, the book still contains a lot of very interesting material. Bednarz is good on the non-Shakespearean plays in the War, convincingly putting Histriomastix into a context of 1590s dramatic rivalry and Inns-of-Court culture. He makes a powerful case that What You Will needs to be seen in terms of a dialogue with and attack on Jonson, and he is good on the ways that Poetaster and Cynthia's Revels treat individual identity and responsibility. The section on As You Like It includes an intriguing discussion of the walk-on role of William relative to the characteristic ways that writers introduce themselves in pastoral. The treatment of the allusion in Hamlet is detailed and enlightening, opening up paradoxes about Hamlet as a whole. And his overall argument about the difference between Shakespearean and Jonsonian constructions of identity ultimately transcends the continuing doubts about traceable personal satire in Shakespeare.


1. R.A. Small, The Stage-Quarrel between Ben Jonson and the so- called Poetasters (Breslau: M. & H. Marcus, 1899). For recent accounts, see Ben Jonson, Poetaster, ed. Tom Cain (Manchester: Revels, 1995) Introduction; Matthew Steggle, Wars of the Theatres: The Poetics of Personation in the Age of Jonson, (Victoria, BC: English Literary Studies, 1998).


Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).